Escape from Dubai – Washington Post – Herve Jaubert fled last Summer
Posted by 7starsdubai on August 20, 2009
source Washington Post
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Herve Jaubert, a French spy who left espionage to make leisure submarines for the wealthy, was riding high.
Bankrolled by Dubai World, a government-owned conglomerate, he built a submarine workshop on the Persian Gulf, lived rent-free in a villa with a pool and tooled around town in a red Lamborghini. He had two Hummers. He vacationed with local plutocrats.
Jaubert said he heard whispers about Dubai’s darker side — the abuse of desperate laborers from impoverished Asian lands, the jailing of the occasional Westerner who crossed a sheik — but “I brushed it all off. I saw glamour. I saw marble columns, mirrors and money.”
Today, the former intelligence operative, who fled Dubai last summer in a rubber dinghy, is a wanted man. In June, a Dubai court convicted him in absentia on charges of embezzling $3.8 million and handed down a five-year sentence, plus a big fine. Jaubert, speaking recently at his new home near West Palm Beach, Fla., said he stole nothing and vowed never to set foot in Dubai again. He said he fled because of gruesome threats by interrogators to stick needles up his nose and what he described as constantly shifting, and all bogus, accusations relating to bullets, murder and the finances of Dubai World’s now-defunct luxury submarine subsidiary.
“If I hadn’t escaped, I’d be in the same hell as everyone else,” said Jaubert, one of scores of expatriate business people in this gleaming city-state who have been accused of crimes — and, in some cases, jailed for long periods without being charged.
Jaubert’s troubles began two years ago when Dubai’s then-booming economy was showing the first faint signs of strain. Local stock and property prices have since swooned, and the tempo of arrests for alleged business misdeeds ranging from a dud check — a criminal offense here — to serious fraud has picked up sharply.
Dubai’s government declined to comment on Jaubert’s allegations of mistreatment. But it has targeted what it sees as dodgy dealmakers and deadbeat debtors, and has declared “no tolerance” of “anybody who makes illegal profits.” For many expatriates, however, the crackdown smacks of a hunt for foreign culprits to blame for the sheikdom’s sliding economic fortunes.
‘It’s All a Bit Scary’
A haven of stability in a region of tumult, Dubai is usually a place people flee to, not from. Foreigners, lured by what President Obama in a June speech in Cairo hailed as the “astonishing progress” of this autocratic but vibrant Persian Gulf metropolis, account for more than 90 percent of the population, and 99 percent of private-sector workers.
But a severe economic slump has reversed the flow. Those who came to Dubai seeking fortunes in property, banking and luxury goodies for the rich now face a less alluring prospect — a prison cell or furtive flight. Only a tiny minority has been picked up by police but, says a longtime foreign resident who runs a company here, “It’s all a bit scary. They are looking for people to carry the can.” The foreign resident, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said a British neighbor was picked up last year.
The turbulence is a blow to a place that promoted itself as the Middle East’s answer to Hong Kong or Singapore. It is also a setback for Washington, which has for years touted Dubai as a model of a modern, prosperous Muslim land that, though far from democratic, seemed anchored in the rule of law and committed to basic rights.
Among those who have been locked up are a JPMorgan investment banker; American, British and other foreign property developers; a German yachtmaker; and two Australians who worked as senior executives of what was to be the world’s largest waterfront development. The gigantic project had been launched by Nakheel, the crisis-battered property arm of Dubai World and builder of Dubai’s signature palm-tree-shaped resort islands.
A few have been convicted, mostly for bouncing checks. Those still awaiting trial often waited many months in jail before being charged: The two Australians, for instance, were arrested in January, held in solitary confinement for seven weeks and then finally charged, with fraud-related offences, last month, said their Melbourne lawyer, Martin Amad.
A banker who headed JPMorgan’s Dubai office and its Islamic banking business was first jailed in June last year but was charged, also in connection with fraud, only this spring. JPMorgan said the alleged crimes do not relate to his work at the bank, which he joined in 2007 and quit in April this year while in detention.
Some have complained through lawyers of being deprived of sleep, denied food for days and routinely menaced. “We will insert needles into your nose again and again,” a security officer can be heard telling Jaubert, the spy turned submarine-maker, on an audio recording, which the Frenchman said was made on his cellphone during an interrogation before he fled. “Do you know how painful it is to have needles put inside your nose repeatedly and then twisted around? Do you think you can resist this kind of pain?”
Jaubert said the interrogation was conducted by two men in long white robes in a bare, windowless room on April 22, 2007, at Dubai’s Al Muraggabat Police Station. On the recording, the interrogators described themselves as state security officers, with one warning Jaubert that “we are above the police, we are above the judges. We can keep here you forever.”
Dubai’s Media Affairs Office said the emirate “prides itself on a well-established system of law and order and judicial fairness.” It did not respond to repeated and detailed questions, and said that officials who could “are physically not here.”
A Developing Chill
Released unharmed but without his passport, Jaubert, who is married to an American, began to plot his escape. Last summer, four years after he arrived Dubai on a business-class ticket, he slipped away by sea. “They picked the wrong guy,” said Jaubert, 53, a former naval officer who, according to a confidential French report, left France’s DGSE intelligence service in March 1993. “With my background, I don’t need a passport to travel.”
The French Consulate in Dubai, which is the business, business and tourism hub of the United Arab Emirates, said it could not comment. France in May opened a naval facility in Dubai’s sister sheikhdom, Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital. Western diplomatic missions have mostly avoided public criticism of the legal system.
Dubai is still far more free and more predictable than most of its neighbors, but a chill has taken hold as property values tumble, jobs vanish and businessmen are detained. Tensions long masked by prosperity have burst into full view — tensions between a foreign majority and locals, known as Emirati; between a city studded with shiny modern skyscrapers, including the world’s tallest now in the final stages of construction; and Dubai’s antiquated political and legal foundations.
Washington counts the UAE as one of its best friends in the region. U.S. warships dock at Jebel Ali, a huge Dubai port area where Jaubert had his luxury submarine venture, Exomos, which promised rich clients “the ultimate underwater experience.” Big U.S. companies, including General Electric, Boeing and Microsoft, have their regional headquarters in Dubai, which has around 20,000 American residents.
These intimate relations include a deal that will allow the UAE to develop a nuclear-power program with U.S. know-how. The relationship came under scrutiny in Washington this year after the release of videos that showed a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family torturing an Afghan grain dealer he accused of cheating him. Abu Dhabi authorities are investigating.
The number of expatriates jailed in Dubai for alleged economic crimes is not known. The government issues no figures. “All I can say is that it is definitely on the rise,” said Samer Muscati, a lawyer with New York-based Human Rights Watch. The main concern, Muscati said, is not that all those arrested are necessarily innocent but that Dubai’s legal system is so opaque, fickle and often heedless of due process.
A vivid example of this is the plight of Zack Shahin, an American businessman of Lebanese origin. A former Pepsi-Cola executive who headed a Dubai property company called Deyaar Development, he was arrested in March last year in connection with a corruption probe involving the Dubai Islamic Bank. Shahin was held incommunicado for 16 days and was not charged for over a year. A Web site set up by his family in the United States alleged that Shahin had been tortured, and it pleaded for his release. The UAE blocked the Web site. U.S. diplomats asked that the case be handled in “an expeditious and transparent manner,” and complained that a delay in granting access to Shahin violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Early this summer, it looked as if Shahin might finally get his day in court and be allowed to go home to await trial. His family took out an ad praising Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, took down the Web site, and scratched together $1.1 million to meet bail. Just as Shahin was about to be released, state security officers arrived and hauled him away for questioning on new charges. He is still in detention. The bail money has not been returned, his lawyers said. Dubai officials said no one was available to comment on the case.
Locals have been picked up, too, and some complain of being unjustly detained. But well-connected Emirati rarely spend long in jail for economic crimes. Wary of debtors’ prison, a growing number of foreigners simply run away.
Simon Ford, a British entrepreneur, skipped town this summer after his company, a specialty gift service, was hit by the crisis and couldn’t pay its bills. He wrote an emotional “letter to the Dubai public” to apologize for bailing out. He acknowledged that he owed money, and said he had fled because Dubai “drives people to make horrible decisions.” He promised to pay back creditors.
Jaubert, the ex-French spy, said he fled because he feared getting stuck in Dubai’s penal twilight zone. A keen amateur marksman, he was first called in for questioning in 2007 after bullets were found at his submarine company offices. Interrogators told him that someone had been shot in the head and that he might be involved. Jaubert replied that he didn’t have a gun: his rifle, which he had declared at Customs, was still stuck at the Dubai airport. His bullets got through.
Security officers accused him of lying. Warning him that Dubai “is not France; there is no democracy here,” an interrogator heard on Jaubert’s tape threatened to put him “in a cave 300 meters underground, away from the world and your family, and I will keep you there until you tell the truth.” Jaubert said authorities later accused him of fraud because “they were just looking for something to nail me with.”
Jaubert blamed his woes on pressure on Dubai World to rein in some of the wilder investment projects launched by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the company’s chairman, who had first invited Jaubert to Dubai. “It was a palace struggle over money,” Jaubert said.
Reached on his cellphone, Sulayem declined to comment. Dubai World’s internal audit chief, Abdul Qadar Obaid Ali, said Jaubert and his submarine venture ran into trouble for other reasons: His submarines didn’t work, and auditors uncovered evidence of fraud involving overbilling for equipment purchases. Jaubert denied this, saying all the transactions were approved and paid for by Dubai World managers.
Fired from Exomos, the submarine company, and unable to get his passport back, Jaubert hatched an elaborate escape plan. He sent his wife and their two boys to Florida. He had diving equipment shipped out from France — broken down into small bits to avoid arousing suspicion. Then, using a phony name, he bought a Zodiac dinghy and sailboat. Using Google Earth, he surveyed the UAE coastline for an escape route. He found an isolated beach and arranged for a friend to take the sailboat out into international waters.
On the eve of his escape, the former spy checked into a hotel near the beach, put on his diving equipment and donned a long abaya, the body-covering cloak worn by strictly observant Muslim women. He said he then went down the beach and swam underwater to a nearby harbor, where the only patrol boat in the vicinity was moored. He clambered aboard and sabotaged the fuel line to make sure the craft could not give chase, he said.
Jaubert then set out to sea in the dinghy to the boat his friend had positioned just outside the UAE’s territorial waters, and they sailed toward India. After eight days at sea, the pair arrived in Mumbai — an account corroborated by his traveling companion. With a new passport issued by the French consulate, Jaubert flew to join his wife in Florida, where he is writing a book he has titled “Escape From Dubai.”
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